An All Black legend’s captaincy gamble on a former wild child James O’Connor may have unlocked his full potential and be the key to the Wallabies winning the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in almost two decades.
O’Connor has been in outstanding form at flyhalf for the Queensland Reds and leads the Super Rugby AU competition for points scored, as well as sitting in the top 10 for carries (equal eighth) and defenders beaten (equal fifth).
But it is former All Black and Reds coach Brad Thorn’s decision to hand O’Connor captaincy duties while regular leader Liam Wright was sidelined with an ankle injury, that may prove a masterstroke not just for Queensland, but Australia.
O’Connor headed into camp in Sydney with the Wallabies this week, as coach Dave Rennie’s preliminary squad of 40 met ahead of the international season which includes Tests against France in July before the Bledisloe Cup series later in the year where Australia will attempt to break an 18-year trophy drought.
While he is the incumbent at no.10, O’Connor is a more polished player than he was even 12 months ago, and certainly two years ago when he made his return to Australia ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
A large part has been his ability to shake of niggling injuries that had shackled him for years.
But it’s been his new-found focus on the needs of others that could help unlock his true potential.
“Through my career I’ve always been pretty individual,” O’Connor said.
“A big part of my growth moving into 10 was I had to learn to serve the team before myself and then the captaincy is another level – it’s not just on the field, it’s a lot of the stuff off the field and making sure that all of the moving parts are coming together correctly.”
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#SPOTLIGHT! Huge praise for the 'new' James O'Connor
🗣️ "It’s like a complete transformation. He’s now the captain of the Queensland Reds,"
Plenty thought the Reds daft when they offered O’Connor a Super Rugby contract in 2019 given his past indiscretions.
But the move has paid off in spades, with the 30-year-old’s tactical understanding of playmaking at an all-time high, while he has finally returned to top physical shape and has the confidence not just to offload the ball but take opponents on to create opportunities for his outside men.
“My understanding of the game is just continually growing,” he said.
“When I spent time in Europe (2015-2019) I had a lingering ankle injury, so I was playing quite heavier … about 95kg and my game was based on solid defence and attacking the line.
“Now I’m playing 10, I need to be able to cover more space, I’m looking for second touches.
“The last thing to come was probably my top end speed but I’m very comfortable with where I’m sitting now and there’s been big growth there.”
Originally published asFormer wild child could captain his country
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